Ennio Morricone, one of cinema’s greatest ever composers, has died at the grand age of 91.
Nicknamed ‘Maestro’, the multi-award-winning composer of over 500 films passed away in his native Rome following complications from a fall last week in which he broke his femur.
Born in 1928, Morricone began writing music at six years old as his father Mario was a trumpet player. At school, he was a classmate of Sergio Leone in what would later lead to one of the great director/composer partnerships.
He then studied at Rome’s Santa Cecilia Conservatory, where he specialised in the trumpet like his father did. His first love was scoring classical pieces but, in order to make a living, he began composing background music for radio drama.
His first film score came in 1961 when he worked on the Italian war comedy The Fascist. Some of his early film scores were undistinguished but his career would soon propel when he got the opportunity to work with Leone on the spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars (1964).
“His score for that film, with its sparse arrangements, unorthodox instrumentation (bells, electric guitars, harmonicas, the distinctive twang of the jew’s harp) and memorable tunes, revolutionised the way music would be used in Westerns.”
A combination of Morricone’s haunting melody and a star-making turn from leading man Clint Eastwood made the film the hit and would lead to a memorable trilogy about the “Man with No Name”.
Its sequel For a Few Dollars More (1965) was also successful but both films were eventually overshadowed by the critically-acclaimed ‘threequel’ The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966).
Morricone penned the memorable and intriguing theme to that film with the sounds of coyotes, the trotting of drum rhythms and electric guitar twangs. The track soon became a worldwide hit and would even reach the number one spot in Britain in 1968.
The film also featured one of Morricone’s greatest pieces in the form of ‘The Ecstasy of Gold’ which was memorably used towards the climax as Tuco (Eli Wallach) desperately searches for a grave containing gold. Incredibly, his work in that trilogy was overlooked for any major film awards including the Oscars and BAFTAs.
Though he preferred to work on European-based productions, the composer’s profile continued to rise as he contributed scores to The Battle of Algiers (1966), Navajo Joe (1966), Escalation (1968), Come Play with Me (1968) and The Mercenary (1968).
A prolific 1968 also saw Morricone work with Leone again on another acclaimed western; Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). The film’s album would sell over ten million copies worldwide with the most successful piece being ‘The Man With The Harmonica’, an exquisite piece of music famous for its use of the harmonica.
There was also his emotionally-rousing soundtrack for the 1969 film Queimada (starring Marlon Brando) which featured the bombastic “Abolição”.
Other notable scores in European projects would follow in the likes of The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion (1970), A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971), Maddelena (1971), Cold Eyes of Fear (1971), Cat O’ Nine Tales (1971), Duck, You Sucker! (1971), What Have You Done to Solange? (1971), Revolver (1973) and Spasmo (1974).
Morricone soon made the leap to Hollywood productions as he composed the score to Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977). Having scored the BBC mini-series An Englishman’s Castle (1978) and the French comedy La Cage aux Folles (1978), he then worked on the epic drama Days to Heaven (1978) which finally landed him his first Oscar nomination. In addition, he would also receive the first of SIX BAFTA awards.
He also provided the hit theme “Chi Mai” for the BBC drama The Life of Times of David Lloyd George (1981) which became an international hit. However, a low point came in 1983 when he (harshly) received Razzie nominations for his work on the critically-derided Butterfly and the sci-fi horror The Thing.
That mini-blip was soon extinguished in 1984 when Morricone collaborated with Sergio Leone for the final time on the crime epic Once Upon a Time in America. Though the film was overlooked by the Academy, Maestro would scoop a second BAFTA win for his memorable themes which included “Childhood Memories” and “Deborah’s Theme”.
More awards success would come the following year when he composed the score to the historical drama The Mission. His expressive and operatic music landed him a third BAFTA and a first Globe win but once again, he failed to land the Oscar.
The 80s ended strongly for Morricone with another BAFTA-winning score for the crime drama The Untouchables (1987) as well as credits on other Hollywood productions including Red Sonja (1985), Rampage (1987), Frantic (1987) and Casualties of War (1989).
Sandwiched between all that was his cherished work on the acclaimed Italian drama Cinema Paradiso (1988). For that film, Morricone got to share his fifth BAFTA with his son Andrea who also worked on the music.
The maestro continued to stay active in the 1990s with scores for the likes of Hamlet (1990), Bugsy (1991), In the Line of Fire (1993), Lolita (1997) and Bulworth (1998). A second Golden Globe win soon followed with The Legend of 1900 and he then landed a fifth Oscar nomination for the Italian drama Malena (2000).
Between 1998 and 2013, Morricone was lavished with accolades from his own country as he won TEN David di Donatello awards for most of his work in Italian films including The Good Rimmed Glasses (1987), Everybody’s Fine (1990), Canone inverso – Making Love (2000), The Unknown Woman (2006) and Deception (2013).
In 2007, Morricone was finally acknowledged by the Academy as he received an honorary award for his magnificent and multifaceted contributions to the art of film music. However, his collaboration with Quentin Tarantino on The Hateful Eight (2015) would prove a fruitful one as the maestro finally clinched an Oscar (as well as a third Golden Globe and sixth BAFTA) for his work on the film.
Morricone is survived by his wife of 64 years Maria Travia and four children.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Towards the end of his life, Maestro was still active with his composing and was even performing concerts well into his late 80s. My dad and I were fortunate enough to watch the great man at the O2 in London in late 2018 and it was certainly an experience we will never forget!